(Adds further gains, new Russian raids)
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN Dec 11 Islamic State captured the ancient
city of Palmyra on Sunday despite dozens of Russian airstrikes
to push back the militants a day after they briefly seized the
city in eastern Syria, a war monitor and the militants said.
In the government's first official admission that Palmyra
had fallen once again to the militants, state media quoted the
governor of the province of Homs, where the city is located, as
saying the army had pulled out of the city.
The collapse of the city's defences despite the heavy
bombing and reinforcements sent by the Syrian army has exposed
the limitations of the Russian backing that has turned the tide
of the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad's favour.
"The army is using all means to prevent the terrorists from
staying in Palmyra," Homs Governor Talal Barazi was quoted as
saying, hours after IS and a Britain-based monitoring group both
said the militants had full control of the city.
Barazi later said militants had brought in reinforcements
from their de facto capital of Raqqa and from Deir Zor province
in eastern Syria bordering Iraq.
Rebels said the focus of Syria's overstretched army on
defeating insurgents in their last urban stronghold of Aleppo
may have diverted much needed resources to defend the city,
where Moscow had in recent months beefed up its defences.
The recapture of Palmyra is a major reversal for Syria's
government and its Russian backer, which hailed the city's
capture in March, sent troops to protect it and even staged a
Earlier on Sunday, Russia said its jets had helped force the
militants out of the city centre overnight while Syria's army
only acknowledged there was a large offensive by the militants
from several fronts near a major grain silo 10 km (6 miles) east
of the city.
Amaq, a news agency linked to Islamic State, said the
militants had captured the ancient Crusader Castle that
overlooks the city and were back in control of Palmyra, an
account backed by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights, which monitors the conflict.
Palmyra, the site of a Roman-era city and spectacular ruins
in the centre of Syria, has become an emblematic battleground in
a civil war now in its sixth year.
Forces allied to Syria's government first recaptured the
city from Islamic State in March, a victory held up as a major
turning point in the war and the biggest reversal for the
militants since Russia's intervention to support Damascus.
But Islamic State militants launched a surprise advance on
the city on Thursday, taking control of nearby oil and gas
fields and pushing towards the T4 airbase, one of Syria's
largest, which is used by Russian forces, the Observatory said.
Russia's defence ministry said its jets had launched 64
strikes and killed more than 300 militants overnight, helping
the Syrian army push the main force back.
More than 4,000 Islamic State militants had since regrouped
and launched a second attack on Sunday, Russian news agencies
cited Moscow's monitoring centre in Syria as saying.
Amaq said the group had expanded its control of areas around
the desert city on Sunday and seized al-Bayarat, the Tadmur
triangle area to its west, and took control of the nearby Hayan
They claimed Islamic State militants had seized 30 Russian
tanks, large quantities of surface-to-surface Grad missiles,
ammunitions and tanks shells and killed around 120 Syrian
troops, a figure that corresponds to the toll cited by the
(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Editing by Tom